Dog Strategy Task Force - Was It All Just a Bad Dream?

Recently, a friend invited me to a group that was exploring getting an off-leash park in Mount Pleasant.

As mentioned elsewhere, I had spent the better part of a year and a half working on the Vancouver Park Board's Dog Strategy Task Force from 2006-2008. It was a tough slog, we did a lot of research and hard work to prepare what we felt was a thoughful and balanced minority report: Dogs in the Urban Environment.

Along with researching best practices, the work of the task force did involve a great deal of public forum and listening to people: many of whom had a great deal of resentment if not outright hostility to dog owners; while the impact of sometimes clueless and sometimes irresponsible dog owners was a compelling and thoroughly legitimate grievance. It was a complicated business — but it became abundantly clear that there were a number of solutions that the city could explore - which we detailed in our report.

Imagine my surprise then, when I went looking for some of the context of that Task Force to find it had been completely "disappeared" off the City's website. Gone. Not a trace. Like some horrible bad dream. Of course, this isn't the first case of revisionist history as part of the City of Vancouver's corporate decision to change their website, notably to remove neighbourhood identities as was the case with Strathcona and the DTES.

In any event, as I've referenced this infamous task force elsewhere, for context I'm including the text from "Dog Fight" Vancouver Courier, November 23, 2007  (reprinted here lest that web information disappear)


"Dog Fight" Vancouver Courier, November 23, 2007 

Many refused to talk on the record out of fear for their safety. Most didn't want their photo taken for fear of retaliation. A majority were worried about aggressive behaviour and even the threat of physical violence and retaliation if they went public with their stories. They are people involved in one of the city's nastiest turf wars, and they want a solution.

They're still waiting for one.

Last spring, a task force was formed to find answers to the conflict, but a media ban had the group working under a cloak of silence. Last month, the task force was disbanded when it became apparent its members were so polarized few issues could be resolved, even with the help of a mediator.

It's not the war on drugs that has these residents watching their backs on our city's streets and parks. It's the war for and against dogs. Better put, it's the endless battle between irresponsible dog owners and residents, including responsible dog owners, who have decided they're not going to take it anymore.

At the top of the hit list are dog owners who let their pets run off leash in areas where they're supposed to be leashed or where dogs aren't allowed at all, such as children's playgrounds and some sports fields and beaches. Convincing dog owners to license their pets is also a problem. Dog owners, meanwhile, complain that without enough off-leash parks, they're forced to ignore city bylaws and exercise their dogs where they can.

This reporter has extensively covered irresponsible dog owners and the people who resent them for more than seven years and three elected parks boards. During that time the parks board and the city's animal control division have launched several initiatives to find a balance between dog owners and the people who want them to control their pets. In 2004 the city endorsed the Animal Control Services Strategic Plan as a five-year guide for city staff to improve animal control services. The plan included several initiatives including a media blitz and public education program dubbed Rex in the City. The program included a booklet that laid out, in simple terms, bylaws relating to dogs and offered tips on training and information such as how to license a dog. The five-year plan also saw fines for bad dog owner behaviour, such as allowing a dog to run at large or not cleaning up feces in public places, leap from $50 to $250.

Dog owners lobbied hard for more rights, such as more off-leash parks, and they fought tooth and nail when fines for bylaw infractions increased. The Canine Citizens of Yaletown group formed during the last civic election and aggressively lobbied campaigning politicians, including Mayor Sam Sullivan.

In the past several years, the tide has shifted as residents who want dog owners to take responsibility for their pets have organized and lobbied against what they call a sense of entitlement among many dog owners. Last year the parks board formed the Dog Strategy Task Force to study the problem and possibly find solutions. Many letters written to the task force were from residents, dog owners and non-dog owners, who said they had been verbally threatened and even physically attacked by aggressive dog owners after asking them to leash their pet. But many dog owners blamed aggression on people rudely demanding they leash their pets.

Many of the complaints to the task force noted dogs aren't the problem, and instead pointed to owners who ignore the bylaws. Now, frustrated Vancouverites are making it clear the constant refrain of, "It's OK, he's friendly," isn't going to cut it anymore, and they want answers, including increased enforcement.

In part one of a two-part series on Vancouver's great dog war, we hear from both sides of this contentious issue. Their sharply differing opinions offer insight into how the Dog Strategy Task Force derailed and why a peace settlement, let alone a simple truce, seems a long way off.

The parks board-organized task force included citizens representing parks and leisure, children and families, pets, the environment, business and community relations. The members included Erik Whiteway, a former parks board candidate, Sherrill Sirrs, former executive with the Vancouver Dog Owners Association, and residents Anne Pepper, Tristan Jackson, Rebecca Sharp, Peter Fry and Elizabeth Wilkinson. The task force organized three public forums last December to gather public opinion. They came up with a list of projects, most of which weren't completed because the members were too divided on issues such as how many off-leash areas should be provided and if they should be provided in new communities, the criteria for the selection of off-leash sites, which areas or parks should be dog-free, if and to what extent off-leash areas should be modified, how the modifications will be paid for and how off-leash areas will be managed. A parks board report released last month noted: "it became apparent that the task force had difficulty agreeing on what was heard and then finding common ground to allow them to move forward toward a draft strategy."

A week after the staff report was released, the parks board disbanded the task force and asked staff to compile the information gathered and develop a report, which should be completed next month. The task force members were asked that they continue to refrain from speaking to the media until the report is finalized.

A parks board report released last month noted: "it became apparent that the task force had difficulty agreeing on what was heard and then finding common ground to allow them to move forward toward a draft strategy."

Wilkinson was one of the few task force members who agreed to speak on the record, but she refused to be photographed. She believes part of the problem with the task force was that it wasn't a proper representation of the city's population. While 10 and 15 per cent of the city's 600,000 residents own dogs, 50 per cent of the task force members were dog owners. "I felt we had identified some areas of common ground and agreed on some major issues, such as the need for increased enforcement," says Wilkinson. "The dog owners were obsessive about getting more space devoted to their pets, despite the public telling us that they felt they had lost their parks due to the dog problem."

Wilkinson says the dog owners on the task force were reluctant to support a ban of dogs from all playing fields, where she says they dig holes that could lead to injuries, and at Mountain View Cemetery, where dogs urinate and defecate on graves and disturb visitors paying their respects. "The dog owners really resented the idea of dog-free parks, even though they have entire parks designated as off-leash, like Fraser River Park and Falaise Park to name just a few," she says. "It was their selfishness and self-absorption that made working together a challenge. As a community we need to ensure the needs of all individuals are met, not just dog owners, and they just didn't get that."

Wilkinson, a young mother, is angry and frustrated at her task-force experience. One of her goals with the group had been to address the problem of aggressive dog owners "bullying" other park users when asked to leash their dog or pick up their pet's feces.

"When seniors are afraid to go into the park in the neighbourhood where they live because they're afraid of the off-leash dogs, something is terribly wrong," she says.

Wilkinson says one of her most recent bad encounters with dogs took place last winter while tobogganing with her child at Clark Park on East 14th Avenue. Wilkinson says she spent the hour asking owners to leash their dogs. "Then sure enough another owner entered the park and took both dogs off the leash, that then started chasing my child on the sled," says Wilkinson. "I had to intervene to prevent them from biting him and point out the on-leash park sign two feet away from the owners. We left the park because we felt unsafe."

Wilkinson says that same week the task force received a letter from a parent upset because his child had been attacked by a dog while tobogganing in the same park. The child was both injured and traumatized by the attack.

In another letter to the task force a woman wrote, "I have given up on saying anything to dog owners because of the hostile reaction to simply being told 'this is a no-dog area.'" The woman was referring to problems she's had with dog owners on a playground. Another woman wrote, "My husband was attacked by a dog owner for defending himself and our dog by another off-leash dog that was attacking our on-leash dog in an on-leash area of Spanish Banks. The owner started hitting my husband for warding off her dog, who approached and started baring teeth and lunging when he asked her to put her dog on a leash."

Another letter reads in part, "I was pushing my child in a stroller and walking my dog on a leash when this dog came at us and knocked me over and then attacked my dog... We were taken away by ambulance to the hospital where they determined I had a broken arm. To this day I have tried to find the owner to at least recover costs to no avail."

Wilkinson's frustration builds when she hears dog owners insist their pets should have the same rights as children. "It's more than a little weird to compare a canine animal to a person," she says. "Dog owners humanizing their pets was indicated as one of the root problems by two civic representatives who gave presentations to the task force."

Several letters to the task force expressed the same view. "Pet owners who extend animal indulgences over human rights have become a serious problem," wrote one. Added another: "I am not prepared to support recreational facilities for 'urban fur children.'"

East Side resident and dog owner Peter Fry sat on the task force. He agreed to speak to the Courier, but as a dog owner and not as a member of the task force. "I want to honour my commitment to the staff who asked us not to speak to the media," he says.

As for dog owners putting the rights of their pets over the rights of children, Fry says he has as much right to use public parks as parents do. "As a taxpayer, how is what I do any different than someone rollerblading," says Fry. "Or take community gardens. They're very exclusive. Once you get a plot of land it's yours, and they're heavily subsidized."

He says many people living in the city are choosing not to have children because they can't afford to buy homes large enough to raise a family. The city's EcoDensity plan means more people in less space. Many of those people, Fry says, will choose to own a dog instead of having children. "There's no room for kids," he says. "As a city we have to find ways to deal with this and not in some draconian way. EcoDensity is not a child-friendly plan and we can expect more dogs."

He'd like the parks board to consider designating several playgrounds as dog friendly. He notes many of his friends have both dogs and children, so playground time becomes a conflict. "Kids and dogs go hand in hand," he says. "I often have to take friends' dogs because they're going to the playground, or they have to tie them up."

Fry wants more off-leash areas in the city, and he believes a solution lies in fences. Many cities in North America use fences to separate off-leash dogs and other park users. New York City and Seattle also fence empty lots and allow them to be used as temporary dog parks. Vancouver has one fenced off-leash area, formerly the shuffleboard courts in Stanley Park, which is dedicated to small dogs. The redevelopment of Nelson Park in the West End will also include a fenced area. "People have this misconception that dogs need an entire park, but they don't," says Fry. "We'd be happy with smaller areas within parks."

Fry also wants education programs introduced at local schools. He says this would not only teach children about dogs and safety, but those same children can pass the information on to their parents, particularly new immigrants. "The majority of dog bites are to boys between the age of five to nine," says Fry. "It's not rocket science to figure out that it's not because boys five to nine are tastier, it's because boys that age are curious about dogs and tend to put their hands in dog's mouths."

"People who leave dog shit around are assholes ... but that has nothing to do with the dog. The same type of person who doesn't pick up after their dog is the same kind who throws litter out their car window or drives while talking on their cellphone and almost runs you over. I think it's going to take members of the dog community to step in and use peer pressure to make them comply."

As for the irresponsible dog owners, Fry believes the numbers have been blown way out of proportion. He notes with 60,000 dogs in the city, we'd be swimming in dog poo if all dog owners weren't picking up after their pets.

"It only takes one uncontrolled dog turd to ruin a park experience," says Fry. "I'm not saying there aren't some problems, sure there are, but not on the level that's been implied."

Fry says dog parks allow neighbours to meet each other, build community and teach dogs to socialize, which makes them friendlier. "My experiences as a dog owner have all been pretty positive," he says. "People who leave dog shit around are assholes," he says. "I step in it all the time, too, but that has nothing to do with the dog. The same type of person who doesn't pick up after their dog is the same kind who throws litter out their car window or drives while talking on their cellphone and almost runs you over. I think it's going to take members of the dog community to step in and use peer pressure to make them comply."

Erik Whiteway also sat on the task force and like Fry, agreed to speak as a resident and dog owner only.

Whiteway says up until the early-1980s most people who owned dogs also owned their own home with a yard. Now that most first-time homeowners live in condos, more Vancouverites share a lot less space. "And those spaces are heavily utilized," says Whiteway, adding without enough designated areas for off-leash dogs, owners have no choice but to flout the bylaw. "And then all parks become off-leash areas. It's forcing dog owners to be lawless. It's becoming normal to break the law because there are no viable options."

Whiteway says Heather Park, on West 18th Avenue, was once designated an off-leash park and was in constant use. But its off-leash designation was revoked after a short time when neighbours complained there had been no public consultation on the park's use.

"It used to be a busy park, but now I run by there all the time and there is no one there," he says. "It's an underutilized green space we could all be enjoying." Whiteway, who twice ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the parks board, has watched the dog issue unfold for almost a decade. He argues people walking their dogs are the majority of park users, with the exception of runners.

"We have 60,000 dogs with approximately 80,000 owners," he says. "There aren't 60,000 kids playing soccer."

Whiteway estimates 10 per cent of the 80,000 dog owners don't pick up after their dogs and also act aggressively when confronted. He also believes some dog owners are avoided by animal control officers who fear for their safety. In Vancouver, animal control officers are often accompanied by Vancouver Police Department officers when attempting to ticket dog owners.

"The stories I hear are always about the pregnant woman with two kids walking in the rain who's being chased down by bylaw officers," says Whiteway. "It's an aggression problem and some animal control officers don't want to deal with it and I don't blame them. But they're happy to give tickets to people in empty parks as long as they don't look aggressive."

Whiteway agrees fences would go a long way in easing some of the conflict between dog owners and other park users. "The saying 'Fences make good neighbours' makes sense," he says. "There's a lot of little steps the park board can make that would make life a lot easier for everyone."

In the Nov. 30 conclusion of this two-part series, the Courier looks at "dog issue" success stories in other Canadian cities.